U.S. likely to miss deadline for screening ship cargo

By Reuters
Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Department of Homeland Security is likely to miss a 2012 deadline to screen all cargo entering the United States by ship unless Congress devotes enormous new resources to the assignment, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told senators Wednesday.

Concerns were raised after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that a nuclear device or other weapon of mass destruction could be smuggled into the country by sea.

In response, Congress ordered that all cargo be screened before being placed on U.S.-bound ships.

But Napolitano told the Senate commerce committee that "DHS is compelled to seek time extensions authorized by law with respect to the scanning provision." The law permits extensions in two-year increments beyond the July 2012 deadline.

The secretary cited a lack of new technology to adequately screen containers as well as the enormous expense. She did not say when she expected to seek the additional time but stressed that efforts to screen cargo will continue.

One of the difficulties has been cost. Napolitano said that scanning equipment would cost $8 million per shipping lane, and that there are 2,100 lanes at more than 700 ports around the world that send cargo to the United States.

Additionally, ports may have to be reconfigured to include the equipment.

Napolitano also noted that some countries are resisting U.S. demands to have screening processes installed at their ports and that some nations could retaliate against the United States.

The Government Accountability Office released a report Wednesday that detailed some of the problems that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has had with efforts to set up screening at foreign ports, including "logistical problems with containers transferred from rail or other vessels." Customs officials "are concerned that they and participating ports cannot overcome" such challenges, the GAO reported.

The commerce committee chairman, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), appeared sympathetic to the difficulties and questioned whether the 2012 deadline could be met.

"I have my questions about whether that's doable," he said. "That does not mean that we should not continue to strengthen our security protocols to prevent high-risk cargo from entering this country, whether by land, sea or air."

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